The polis, also known as the city-state, was the dominant form of political and social organization during the classical* period of Greek history. City-states were fundamentally different from the monarchies* of the earlier Mycenaean period and of the later Hellenistic* age. Although some city-states, such as Athens, had tens of thousands of citizens, Greek city-states were notable for their small size and strong sense of community.

Features of the Polis. A polis consisted of an urban center and the surrounding territory, which the city controlled. Although natural features, such as mountains, set the boundaries of some city-states, many others bordered on one another. Border wars were common but so were cooperation and agreements between city-states. Although each polis jealously guarded its independence, foreign threats and competition for trade led to the establishment of alliances and leagues. Religion, commerce, and athletic competitions, such as the Olympic Games, helped create a common Greek culture.

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

* monarchy nation ruled by a king or queen

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

The economy of a polis was based on the agriculture of the surrounding territory. The agora*, temples, and other sites served as the commercial, social, religious, and political centers of urban life. The Greeks defined the polis in terms of its citizens. However, citizens made up only a small part of the population of a polis because many foreign residents and slaves lived in the cities but were excluded from citizenship. Adult male citizens controlled the political life of the polis; women had no political rights and were excluded from public life.

Common religious beliefs and practices created a strong bond among the citizenry. Each polis had a special patron* god or goddess who protected the city. Many feasts and festivals were held during the year in both the urban center and in the surrounding rural area. At these festivals, animals were sacrificed* to a god or goddess and the meat distributed to the participants. City-states also organized athletic, dance, and theater competitions.

Divine permission, usually obtained from the oracle* of Apollo at Delphi, was required before a new polis could be established. The founders of a new polis provided a sacred fire that was carried to the new city. Citizens of a polis paid great honor to their founder, who received a lavish public funeral when he died, as well as burial inside the city walls. A large tomb usually marked the founder’s grave.

Greek city-states had many of the same institutions—magistrates* who were elected annually, a council of elders, and an assembly. Citizens participated in the assembly, the council, and the courts and in the election of magistrates. Respect for the law was an important feature of a polis. Citizens took pride in regulating their lives according to the laws of their community. Each polis kept a list of citizens who could be called on to defend the city’s independence against external threats.

* agora in ancient Greece, the public square or marketplace

* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter

* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat

* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made

* magistrate governmental official in ancient Greece and Rome

The Athenian Polis. Athens and Sparta were the largest of the Greek city- states. Sparta eventually became a military dictatorship, and Athens a democracy, which implied an equality of participation in government activities. At the peak of its greatness, the Athenian polis had almost 200,000 inhabitants. While Athens had many of the same features as other Greek city-states, it developed distinctive features of its own. During the classical period, the Athenian polis was shaped by a series of reforms. In about 508-507 B.C., Cleisthenes prevented Athenian aristocrats* from controlling the assembly by limiting citizenship. He also instituted the Council of 500, whose members were chosen by lot from male citizens 30 years of age or older.

Several years later, additional reforms were instituted. A board of ten generals was created to distribute military power more evenly. Members of the Council of 500 were required to swear an oath to act in accordance with the laws and in the best interest of the polis. They were to supervise the city magistrates. In addition, they swore not to take action on important matters “without a decision of the people in assembly.” They also swore not to imprison any citizen except those charged with treason, revolution, or breaking their tax contracts.

* aristocrat person of the highest social class

In the early 400s B.C., Athenian lawmakers introduced the practice of ostracism. In an ostracism, the assembly voted to banish a citizen from the city for ten years. Ostracisms were relatively common at first, but after about 480 B.C., they occurred less frequently, and the practice ended in the late 400s B.C.

Perhaps the most extreme reform occurred in 487-486 B.C., when the method for choosing magistrates changed from direct election to selection by lot. As a result of this particular reform, magistrates no longer tended to be the leading citizens of the city. Instead, they were average citizens taking their turn at fulfilling their civic duty. Another reform came in 462-461 B.C., when Athens reduced the powers of the Areopagus, a legislative body and high court consisting of former archons*. The Areopagus also had been the traditional source of aristocratic power.

As a result of these reforms, the Athenian assembly became the supreme authority. Persuasive leaders could steer the assembly toward support for their programs. For example, with support from the assembly, Themistocles built up the port of Piraeus, turned Athens into a strong naval power, and led the Greeks to victory over the Persian Empire. Similarly, Cimon was able to expand the Athenian empire and increase the economic strength of the polis. While the assembly made leaders, it could also break them. Despite all he had accomplished for the polis, Cimon was ostracized by his fellow citizens.

The Athenian assembly met regularly on a hillside that overlooked the city. The assembly required a quorum* of at least 6,000 citizens, and it had the power to elect and depose* government officials. The agenda for each assembly meeting was prepared by the Council of 500. Assembly meetings lasted from dawn to midday, and votes were taken by a show of hands.

During the Hellenistic period, the polis was marked by increasing conflict between rich and poor. During the Roman Empire, the Greek polis continued a tradition of independence and competition, of civic pride and a sense of cultural superiority over the Romans. (See also Democracy, Greek; Government, Greek; Greece, History of.)

* archon in ancient Greece, the highest office of state

* quorum number of members of an organization who must be present for the group to conduct business

* depose to remove from high office


The great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle believed that the best place to live was in a polis. In his dialogue the Republic, Plato imagined an ideal state that was governed by a philosopher-king. Although different from any existing polis, Plato based his ideal state on the Greek polis. The concept of the city-state was even more fundamental to Aristotle. He began his great work in political philosophy by stating that "man is by nature an animal of the polis."

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